Dorah Mmekwa: Ford’s production engineer a trendsetter for SA’s girl child
‘SHE broke the glass ceiling.’ These are words used when a woman takes her talent, skill and determination to levels where men (some of them without even half the woman’s skill) already are.
Meet Dorah Mmekwa, Production Manager at Ford’s Silverton Assembly Plant in Pretoria. An engineer by training, Dorah is one of the ‘ceiling-breaking’ women in charge of producing the Ford Ranger and the versatile Everest SUV.
Watching Dorah speak about her role in the manufacturing environment at Ford Motor Company South Africa (FMCSA), one cannot help but draw parallels with Damyanti Gupta – the first ever female engineer with an advanced degree at Ford Motor Company.
Born in 1942 in British India (present-day Pakistan), Damyanyi grew up at a time when women seldom took jobs but dreamt of being an engineer at Ford Motor Company in the US.
Apart from becoming one of India’s first female engineers, Damyanti became the first female engineer at Ford in 1967, at a young age of 25.
Growing up, Dorah probably never heard of trailblazers like Damyanti but she too beat her own path to land become one of the most celebrated female engineers in not just South Africa, but the continent at large.
Accomplishment for women is often defined in terms of the barrier they overcome rather than the triumph they have achieved.
While she is up there where the air is thin, where men still outnumber women, Dorah holds herself with both confidence and inspiring humility. She says women breaking into male-dominated industry is a matter of skill and ability, and never about gender.
“Seeing a woman in a male-dominated industry is both challenging and exciting. It has nothing to do with gender, but has to do with having the skills, capabilities and ability to do the job,” Dorah says in a video shared by Ford Motor Company a few years ago with its global audience.
She features among a list of women whose skills have driven Ford Motor Company to the pole position it occupies today, 55 years since Damyanti took up her engineering job in the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan, in January 1967. She was honoured by Time magazine alongside Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton as iconoclasts of their respective fields.
“Ford Motor Company South Africa advocates and promotes diversity and inclusion. I’m grateful and proud to be part of the blue oval family,” Dorah said.
Dorah is in her 13th year at FMCSA, having joined in 2009 as part of the company’s graduate trainee programme within the Industrial Engineering field. In no time, she took up responsibilities and challenges that saw her climb up the corporate ladder to become the Process and Industrial Engineering technician in 2010.
She was to become Quality System Engineer from 2012 to 2015, then Senior Systems Engineer (Paint Shop) for the following three years. Between 2018 and 2021, Dorah occupied a number of key posts in the Production, Manufacturing Engineering and Maintenance units.
She was then promoted to Quality System engineer in 2012 and was awarded another promotion in 2015, as Senior Process engineer at the Paint Shop, where she had to ensure the ongoing development of procedures and enhancement of Ford’s vehicle manufacturing products.
It’s only five months into her job as Production Manager which she started as a promotion in January 2022, as her star shines even brighter .
“Ford has given me the platform to expand my knowledge and experience,” she says. “Mentors were assigned to groom and coach me in the various areas of the business, and to prepare me for my next job assignments.
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“The continuous training and skills development opportunities helped increase my knowledge and understanding of my various functions, and allowed me to constantly progress.
“Ford has also provided regular assessments to help me identify my strengths and weaknesses as part of the Individual Development Planning (IDP) process. This helps employees achieve personal objectives while making meaningful contributions to the business,” Mmekwa explained in a 2020 interview published by Ford News.
In 2020, Dorah was awarded the coveted Woman of Excellence award by the Motoring Women of the Year Awards (MWOTY), which recognises the hard-working women in the motoring industry in South Africa.
The fact that she was nominated and selected from over 1 200 submissions from the entire motoring fraternity speaks volumes about the respect she has earned from colleagues in the motor manufacturing industry.
Her employer, FMCSA has previously said they were “exceptionally proud of Dorah… for her career development in general and her rapid ascension into leadership level”.
On the continent, Dorah equally stands tall among the few women to carve a niche for themselves in predominantly male environments. Her life thus far is nothing short of a feat.
It is not easy to predict the career destination of trendsetters like Dorah Mmekwa, but it’s instructive to learn that Ford has a high proportion of employees with an impressively long track record.
Ford employs over 4 300 people in South Africa at its two local plants: the Silverton Assembly Plant in Pretoria, which assembles the Ranger, Ranger Raptor and Everest for domestic sales and export markets, and the Struandale Engine Plant in Port Elizabeth which produces engines and components for local and export customers.
At the Silverton Assembly Plant, 42 percent of its workforce have notched up a decade or more of service, of which 7 percent have been with the company for between 20 and 29 years, with the same percentage of employees having served for a remarkable 30 years or more.
Almost 32 percent of employees at the Struandale Engine Plant have achieved similar long-serving status, including 20 percent with between 11 and 20 years, over 8 percent who have completed up to three decades, and 3.6 percent that have worked at Ford for 30 years and above.
The number of long-service employees is exceptional, and shows how Ford has grown into one of the biggest manufacturers in South Africa.
Nearly 110 years since Henry Ford’s most noteworthy and successful production innovations were implemented, Dorah’s rapid career rise is proof the company continues to empower its workforce by creating opportunities for personal growth and career development.
But there is a dark lining to the silver cloud. According to a Global Citizen report of 2020, only 13% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates in South Africa are female.
Refilwe Buthelezi, another exponentially rising female engineer and South Africa’s first woman to be appointed President of Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), reckons that the scales are still tilted against female engineers in the country.
“Only 1 in 5 engineers in South Africa are women and continue to earn significantly less than men do,” said Refilwe.
The trailblazing achievements of Dorah and other female engineers make it gradually easier to convince more women to take up cngineering as a career discipline. ■